Urban Legend

The Search for the Elusive 9/11 Surfer: Pasquale Buzzelli’s Story on Discovery Channel

Immediately after 9/11, rumors emerged of someone who had ‘surfed’ the debris to safety. A Discovery Channel documentary on the 11th anniversary of the tragedy told the story of survivor Pasquale Buzzelli, who may or may not be the surfer.

09.12.12 8:45 AM ET

When Pasquale Buzzelli regained consciousness on Sept. 11, 2001, the dust of what had once been the World Trade Towers still billowed over Manhattan and fires burned in the rubble of what had once been the skyline’s most striking features. Among the men and women who bravely climbed into the wreckage to find someone, anyone, who might have survived, the hope of pulling even one person out burned brighter. For a time that hope gave birth to rumors of miraculous things.

Among the most cinematic was that of a World Trade Center “surfer,” someone who had ridden fragments of the building down from the highest floors as it fell, and somehow escaped unscathed, or at least alive. It was a story that was in many ways a measure of what Americans wanted and needed to believe in the immediate aftermath of a disaster that defied comprehension.

On Tuesday night, the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, the Discovery Channel aired a documentary that showed the need to believe the miraculous had intruded on the tragic that day and has not dimmed by the passage of years. The hourlong film, titled The 9/11 Surfer and which promises to find out “what really happened” regarding this figure of urban myth, does little more than wrap the survival of one extremely fortunate man, Pasquale Buzzelli, in the garments of a story Americans always wanted to be true but that never quite panned out.

And while NBC’s Savannah Guthrie said on Today before the documentary aired that Buzzelli’s tale is a “survivor’s story that is just now being publicly told for the first time,” the tale of how Buzzelli endured the collapse and was discovered in the open air by firefighters had been told multiple times in prominent publications in the intervening years.

Neither Buzzelli nor the Discovery Channel returned requests by The Daily Beast for comment on the documentary.

According to the documentary, as well as other press accounts of Buzzelli’s activities that day, the 34-year-old Port Authority engineer made his way to work in the North Tower and exited the elevator onto the building’s 64th floor shortly after American Airlines Flight 11 had crashed into the structure. He and his fellow employees did not begin to evacuate the building until after the South Tower had collapsed at 9:59 a.m. Buzzelli made his way down stairwell B, one of the building’s three exit stairways. He had reached the 22nd floor, he says, when the building began to collapse. He threw himself against a wall and curled into the fetal position, then, after a brief freefall, blacked out. He woke up again three hours later, he said, atop the rubble of the tower.

By that account, Buzzelli had fallen to about the seventh story—a drop of 200 feet.

He was one of 16 people to survive in Stairwell B, and despite the publicity for Discovery’s documentary, his story was widely told. The New York Daily News wrote about Buzzelli on Nov. 11 and Nov. 30, 2001. He was featured prominently in a 2002 USA Today feature on World Trade Center survivors, as well as in a New York magazine story published in 2003.

In those accounts, neither Buzzelli nor the eager-for-an-angle reporters dubbed the man a World Trade Center “surfer.” The closest anyone comes to applying that moniker is in the New York article, in which reporter Steve Fishman, who appears numerous times in the Discovery documentary to lend color to Buzzelli and the events of Sept. 11, writes in a parenthetical that Buzzelli “may be the source of the rumor that someone surfed the collapse and lived.”

The Discovery Channel documentary spends nearly its first 10 minutes rehashing the old legends—all debunked—of a surfer. It reviews the stories of two Port Authority officers, one of them identified as John McLoughlin, who had been rumored to ride the debris down from above the 80th floor. Newsweek, among other prominent news organizations, reported that version of McLoughlin’s story as a fact in the weeks after the attacks. Similar stories made the papers in England and Scotland as early as Sept. 13. The Port Authority, which owned the towers and the World Trade Center property, later clarified that the officers were on the ground level when the towers fell.

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Steve Coleman, a spokesman for the Port Authority, said he was familiar with Buzzelli’s story but did not recall all the details of it. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that it happened, it’s just that I don’t know the specific details of it,” Coleman told The Daily Beast. “I have no doubts whatsoever about the validity of that story.”

The Discovery Channel offers two experts in its documentary, one supporting the idea that Buzzelli is the “surfer” and another contesting the idea. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Prof. Thomas Eagar says in the film that his research showed that the strength of the winds generated by the tower’s collapse could reasonably have borne Buzzelli aloft, and cushioned his 15-story plummet.

Eagar declined to speak to The Daily Beast on the phone before the premiere of the documentary, but did answer some questions regarding his research via email.

“You have to consider his acceleration and deceleration as well as his location in the building, in addition to the winds created by the collapse and turbulence of the fall,” Eagar said in an email. “It cannot be explained in a ‘soundbite.’”

“It had to do with his initial location near the bottom as opposed to the top, as well as how fast he was going on the roller coaster when he came to a ‘stop,’” Eagar said.

“I had not heard his story before,” Eagar said. “I was asked if it was plausible. After some analysis I found it was.”

Eagar’s expert opinion is given more play in the documentary than that of the other expert, Shiya Ribowsky, who was the lead forensic investigator at Ground Zero. “I’m not calling this gentleman a liar,” Ribowsky says in the documentary. “It is possible that this happened? Sure, anything is possible. All I’m saying is, if it did he’s the luckiest man that ever lived on the face of the planet. And that’s a pretty interesting title.”

So is Buzzelli the surfer everyone hoped had survived the collapse of the Twin Tower? Until the Discovery Channel documentary, the idea of someone who had navigated the ruins as they fell had long since receded into the darker corners of urban legend.

In the aftermath of the disaster, Dr. Rita Fahy, a manager of the National Fire Protection Association’s analysis and research division, helped gather first-person accounts of how 435 individuals escaped death on Sept. 11. Fahy said she, like many others, had heard the never-substantiated rumor of someone who had ridden the debris down from the 80th floor or higher. Buzzelli does not seem to fulfill that story, Fahy said. “I think the story of somebody riding it down was not him,” Fahy said, pointing out that Buzzelli says he was on the 22nd floor when the tower fell. That does not take anything away from his extreme good fortune, she said. “If you were on the 22nd floor and survived, that would be pretty amazing,” Fahy said. “That alone is quite a story.”

There also may be some discrepancy about exactly what floor Buzzelli was on when the North Tower collapsed, a fact that goes unmentioned in the Discovery Channel presentation. While Buzzelli recalls being on the 22nd floor when the staircase fell out from under him, Genelle Guzman-McMillan, a Port Authority clerk who was beside him at the time the building went down, according to the 2002 USA Today article, said they were on the 13th floor. Guzman-McMillan was pulled from the rubble 27 hours later, the last person to be extracted alive. She also did not respond to requests for comment.